Kahuna board game: A four-sided review

Kahuna board game box

The Kahuna board game is a two-player only abstract game. It comes in a small box and takes around 30-60 minutes to play. It’s listed for ages 10+, which is probably about right – although It’s potentially 8+ for a gamer kid.

The two-player line of small box games from publisher Kosmos has great pedigree. Games such as Targi, Lost Cities, Jambo, The Rose King and Balloon Cup have really stood the test of time – and Kahuna is no different.

What these games share is a light set of rules. But enough variability and randomness to draw in a wider group of fans than traditional ‘perfect information’ abstracts. Kahuna itself is a re-implementation of 1997 title Arabana-Ikibiti. Two players fight for control of 12 islands, which they take by owning at least half of the bridges connecting to them. In the box you’ll find the playing board, 24 cards, 50 wooden (Catan style) bridges and 20 wooden player control pieces (10 per player). At around £20, it’s solid value for money.

Teaching the Kahuna board game

As alluded to earlier, the rules to the Kahuna board game are simple. On a turn, you’ll either take a card or play some of your cards, then draw a card. You have a hand limit of five, but only ever draw one. So often you’ll just keep taking cards in the hope of playing a big round later; before building up again. When taking a card, you either take blind from the top of the deck or from one of three face-up cards.

The 24-card deck consists of two identical cards for each island on the board. A game lasts three rounds, with a round ending when all cards have been drawn. So a certain level of card counting skill is very helpful. The player winning round one (by controlling most islands) scores one point; and round two, two points. In the final round, the player who controls most islands scores the difference (so eight islands to four scores four points). If tied, the win goes to the player who scored in the final round.

To place a bridge, a player discards a card for one of the two islands the bridge will connect. To remove an opponent’s bridge, a player must play two cards from the relevant islands (either one of each or both of one island). Once a player has at least half the bridges to an island, they place one of their markers on it. And as they do so, they remove any bridges the opponent had to that island. Similarly, if you lose control of an island you remove your control marker. So clever play can lead to an opponent losing several markers at once, as bridges are removed from other islands as you take over connected ones.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: The Kahuna board game does what every good abstract should do: makes you think in a different way to other games. Everything about the game feels tight, and big moves can be hugely satisfying. It’s the kind of game that makes you feel clever for pulling off a great combo. But the next minute your mouth is dropping open as you realise what your opponent is doing back to you. And all that with just a small board, 24 cards and a few wooden pieces.
  • The thinker: There are clever strategies available to you in Kahuna. But you need the right cards to pull them off. And there is no way to mitigate against not seeing the cards you need. This can make it a very frustrating game. But at about 10 minutes per round, so 30-ish minutes per play, you can simply play again. And I’m very keen on the clever way the islands/bridges/cards interact and the cascading effect control can have. So overall, this is a game I’m always happy to play.
  • The trasher: The pretty blues and greens of these pacific islands hide a viscous little area control game. Card counting isn’t crucial but can give you a big advantage. There’s nothing like knowing you have a big move planned – and your opponent can do nothing to stop it until the next round. Even then, you draw all the cards each round but don’t necessarily play them all. Cards in your hand at round-end stay there – so you can technically hold some power here too. A great game with hidden depth.
  • The dabbler: I do love the look of these pretty small box games and Kahuna is especially lovely. The cards are nicely done, with the way up to look at them indicated for both players (depending on your side of the board). Plus the island is marked (Ticket to Ride style) on a map on the card itself. One down side is it can be easy to misjudge how many bridges you need to control an island. And forget if all its cards are gone! But the fun level is high enough to cover these small frustrations.

Key observations

Kahuna is a mean, cutthroat game. Build something nice and your opponent is obliged to destroy it. Make something flimsy and risky, and your opponent will take joy in ripping it to shreds. There is no turtling in this game, as you will never be able to build a strong enough base to get enough points to take a victory. As clever as it is, the game will not win over those who simply hate aggressive area control games. But as someone who is not keen on them myself, I’m proof that it will certainly win over some.

And yes, it is an abstract game. Turns are short, there are no dice, and there are no cards with words. There’s no asymmetry, no modules, and no minis. That’s just not for everyone. Yet it can still feel confusing. It’s amazing that, with so few components, it is easy to completely miss things. The board itself doesn’t help in this regard. The islands are all the same art style/colour, just differently shaped. So it’s easy to see why some players just end up seeing white noise and can’t really grock what the hell they’re meant to be doing.

Randomness and card counting

While the cards add randomness, they are also very limiting. If you don’t see what you need – and your opponent just keeps picking up what they want – it can be frustrating. But this tends to balance out and I find, in shorter games, I can take the pain. But others will find this very frustrating. I should also point out that card counting doesn’t need to be a skill you have. If both players agree, you can play one of the variants in the rulebook. Now, any card taken face-up stays face up, so you don’t have to remember what your opponent has taken.

One small negative from me is the latest edition has slightly lower quality pieces than earlier versions. Once player stones were chunky and had a nice print. Now they’re just basic cheap discs. It was similar with the last Rose King printing, where nice wooden discs were replaced with cardboard. It seems strange that, at a time board game component quality is largely rising, Kosmos is cutting corners.

Conclusion: Kahuna board game

Kahuna is a fantastic two-player area control abstract game. The cards add a layer of luck but also variability. And the spatial element makes it an absolute brain burner to play well. I think you need to enjoy the push and pull of a tight one-on-one game to appreciate it. But if you do, you should absolutely make sure not to miss this one. It has been a big hit with both me and my better half and is a definite keeper.

  • I would like to thank Kosmos UK for providing a copy of the game for review.
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